Taking the Self out of Self-improvement

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The following is a guest post by my friend J.J. Smith. Jack has the privilege of serving in his church and working as an editor.

I often wonder why it is so much easier to buy books than to read them. It just feels good to buy a book. It feels safe, or even good—like overspending at a charity dinner. Purchasing more books feels almost like an altruistic act, a contribution to the little society of your personal study.

But is it?

As I stare at my bookshelf, at the dear coffee-stained friends I have accumulated over the years, I think about what it is that these titles all share in common. Each book offers me some kind of help. Some urge me to write better, to read better, to live better, to strike up a conversation with strangers better, to be bolder, to be more humble—but what all of them do is urge me to be better. I am at the center of all these books. And I think what draws me to continuously fill my shelf with these types of books (even if I know I won’t read them) is that I want someone to just focus on me for several hundred pages. I want someone to write into the question marks of my soul. I want a paper counselor for $9.95 who I can confess to in the margins.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself. But if money is where your heart is, the bookshelf is where your mind is. The common theme of my library reveals that I have spent a lot of time thinking about me. And I think I would be foolish if I did not honestly stop and ask myself how much better I am for spending this much time gazing into the abyss of my own navel-shaped literature.

When I first realized that my reading preferences tended toward self-focus, I stopped reading several of the books I was reading. And I poured myself into other books—books that have little to do with me or even the time I live. And it has helped. So here’s my simple plea to you—if you find that your own reading list is filled almost entirely by books about you, consider taking up at least one book right now that has nothing to do with you. Have the courage to take your focus off of self-improvement for a little while, and lose yourself in a narrative that is larger than you, in a Person that is bigger than you.

As a rower looks the opposite direction to gain the strength to propel himself forward, look outside yourself, look the other way just for a bit, and you might be surprised at the growth that begins to take shape in your life. Stop staring so closely at the kettle of your personal growth. Sometimes it boils quicker if left unwatched.

Read of Others

My dad and I were recently watching a show together where the main character wore a simple, yet stylish denim jacket. Before the show was even over, my dad and I both looked at each other and laughed. Off we went to find ourselves denim jackets of our own (we did, but they were expensive. So we went home empty-handed, which was probably for the best). But as I think about that natural response to imitate those we admire, it seems to be an instinct that has the fingerprints of a wise Creator all over it. Why not use this natural desire to emulate to our advantage?

Read of great men and women. Give yourself examples to admire, and let the uncomfortable alien-ness of their lives sit in tension with your comfort-drenched life. Look at the great people of the past and learn from their lives. They are not like you, but that’s exactly why you need to pay attention. Don’t be too quick to discard the Puritans as “out of touch” just because the time they live in is so different than our own.

The New Testament is full of “imitate me’s.” God’s call for our lives sometimes comes through the example of others—through seeing better versions of ourselves being lived out by those God has placed around us.

This is the story of Augustine, who by book eight of his Confessions is “attracted to…the Savior himself, but…still reluctant.” He visits an older believer to share his struggles—his intellectual and spiritual concerns about faith. And the believer does not pull out a four spiritual laws tract, nor does he start to walk the Romans road with him. He does something we might not do naturally—he tells Augustine of another man named Marius Victorinus, a learned and well-respected orator in Rome, a man who had accomplished much of what Augustine himself had dreamed of. With the world at his fingertips, Victorinus gave up everything to become a Christian. This older believer knew that Augustine would see something of himself and his longings in the life of Victorinus. He knew that this might instill in Augustine a desire to follow this traveled path by one who was not all that unlike him.

Read biographies. Line your bookshelves with stories of men and women who are further down the path than you. Stare into their lives as mirrors, notice the similarities, and let yourself feel the weight of the differences. Pray that God would give you the grace to advance in the admiral qualities you observe in their lives.

Read of Christ

I recently heard theologian Sinclair Ferguson answer a question about how to read the gospels. His claim was that so many read the gospels in a somewhat self-centered manner, trying to write themselves into the gospels, either as the one who can also now calm the waters or heal the sick or as the one who is called to step upon these stormy waters. This is the sad by-product of the reading tendency I explained earlier—we like reading about ourselves. When we become well-trained in expecting books to be about us, we start to look for ourselves even in books that are decidedly not about us.

But Ferguson’s instruction to this honest question about the first four books of the New Testament was simple—read the gospels and watch as men and women are drawn to Christ. And when they are, write down what it is about the person of Christ that drew them. Watch this compassionate, all-knowing, gentle, insightful, and truthful Man draw broken men and women to himself. Watch as Jesus turns from the crowds and takes notice of the leper who “came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean’” (Matthew 8). Jesus noticed the forgotten. He cared for the one no one else did. Look at Jesus as he kneels beside the woman caught in adultery, knowing full well her sin, but is knees-to-the-dirt-overcome with care for her. Look at this weeping Man who sees loved ones broken over the death of Lazarus. Let yourself fall in love with him, for the same reasons they did. Let yourself fall in love with His intricate gentleness, His seemingly endless giving of Himself, His knowledge of men and His simultaneous care for man. Be okay with not finding yourself in the story for a moment.

Scottish Pastor Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” Just like any new relationship in which you begin to fall in love with a person, you seem to be finding yourself in them, so it is with Christ. The more and more you know of Him and love Him, the more of yourself you will find in Him. You will find a child of grace who is loved and defined by the One who cares for you and calls you His own. You will be important, not because you have learned to better yourself, but because there is a Father who has not stopped scanning the road, waiting for you to come home.


My challenge is simple and it is aimed at your book budget: Have the courage to read books that have nothing to do with you. Have the courage to fall in love with a narrative that has nothing to do with you—to be drawn to a person that is not you. And you will find, in a backward sort of way, that sometimes when you take your eyes off of yourself that is when you grow the most.

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